A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Armchair Papyrologist: You Too Can Decipher Oxyrhynchus Papyri!

Time on your hands? Nothing on TV? Bored and goofing off at work? Tired of playing Angry Birds? (Oh, admit it, you know you do.) Oh, yes, and also: Highly competent in the epigraphic and lexical skills for reading fragments of late classical provincial vernacular Greek papyri? If this describes you, then surf on over to Ancient Lives and help crowdsource the decipherment of the Oxyrhynchus papyri.

A hat tip to Arabic translator and Naguib Mahfouz expert Raymond Stock for this link (via Facebook actually), but it may be one of the more interesting (or quixotic?) Internet experiments I've seen.

Now just in case you don't immediately get excited and start salivating when you hear the phrase "Oxyrhynchus papyri," perhaps some background is in order. The basics are here on Wikipedia.

Egypt, as one of the oldest and most continuous civilizations on earth, not only invented bureaucracy but honed it to a fine edge: though most Ancient Egyptian documents that survive are carved on stone, whenever papryus survived in the dry ground it tends to be enormously valuable, since it shows both the libraries of the day and sometimes the administrative documents. Treasure troves like the Nag Hammadi  manuscripts (the greatest library of Gnostic documents in Coptic and Greek) or the Cairo Geniza (which gives an indispensable picture of the correspondence of a medieval Mediterranean Jewish community) have both created whole fields of study in their own right.

Oxyrhynchus was once a major city in Egypt; in Hellenistic times, according to Wikipedia, it was the third largest city in Egypt. The name means "city of the sharp-nosed fish," and Wikipedia offers this:
The town was named after a species of fish of the Nile River which was important in Egyptian mythology as the fish that ate the penis of Osiris, though it is not known exactly which species of fish this is.
Possibly Too Much Information,

Nonetheless, the folks in Oxyrhynchus appear to have been in the habit of taking their old papryi out to a dump site, which two archaeologists eventually discovered. The papyri were mostly Greek (with some Coptic and a few late ones in Arabic), and were all over the map, including Biblical and other religious texts, bits and pieces of the Greek classics, and so on. The link to the papyri article above will deal with some of the most important discoveries.

Though the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been studied for well over a century now, the sheer number of fragments (in the hundreds of thousands) means not all have been read and translated. The Wikipedia link cited earlier gives links to published works (many now in public domain and available online), and the holder of the largest bulk of the papyri, the Ashmolean at Oxford, has gateways here and here with more.

But there's obviously more to be done, and the various groups behind the Ancient Lives site seem to feel this is a chance to let the scholarly community (or anybody else with a penchant for late Classical provincial vernacular Greek) offer their own comments and translations. It's an intriguing idea.

One of the great lacunae in my life is my nearly total lack of Greek: I have, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, "Small Latin and Less Greek," so I will not be joining in the fun.


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